Defining what ‘substantially limits’ means in ADA disability law
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Defining what ‘substantially limits’ means in ADA disability law

Understanding definitions in ADA disability law is key for compliance

Remember, an ADA disability is a condition that substantially limits a major life activity. But what is a “substantial” limitation?
Is an employee who wears glasses have a disability because his or her need for corrective lenses “substantially” restricts the ability to see? How about a worker who can’t lift her arms above her head, but can lift normally otherwise?
This question brought in an ADA lawsuit has gone all the way to the Supreme Court, which gave some guidance in the case of Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky v. Williams in 2002.
According to that decision, an employee has to either be completely unable to perform a major life activity, or be “severely restricted” in performing it, before he or she can be considered to have an ADA disability.
With that in mind, here are a couple of cases to help us pin down the elusive adverb “substantially.” The company lost the first one, but the employer won the second.

Do ADA Disability Rights trump workplace rules?

“Can I please get through here?” Juanita Berkshire asked politely.

“No way,” stockroom supervisor Bella Johnson said firmly, her arms crossed on her chest. “This department is not a short-cut between the employee entrance and the sales floor. You know that.”

“Yes, but Steve Jorgensen gave me permission to cut through,” Juanita said. “I can’t go the long way around because my leg gets numb when I walk more than about 50 yards.”

“Steve Jorgensen may be your supervisor, but he doesn’t run the stockroom,” Bella said. “I’m not going to set a precedent and then see half the store cutting through here and disrupting our work.”

Juanita’s nerve-related problem with her leg grew worse, and she eventually had to quit her job because she could no longer reach her work station from the parking lot. She filed an ADA lawsuit, arguing that she was “substantially limited” in her ability to walk, and thus the store should have accommodated her.

The court agreed with Juanita and ruled against the company. While the court might have ruled otherwise if Juanita had complained, for instance, that she could no longer do five-mile recreational walks, in this case she was to the point where she couldn’t walk a city block. Her numbness was so bad that she felt as though she had to use her hands to lift her leg at each step. That was a severe enough restriction on her walking (obviously a major life activity) to qualify as substantial under the ADA.
(EEOC v. Sears)

How the supervisors slipped up: Bella, the stockroom supervisor, was unreasonably inflexible. Sure, she had to protect her department from disruption, but letting Juanita pass through it wouldn’t have set any kind of precedent if the other employees were informed of why Juanita was allowed to take the short cut. And Steve, Juanita’s supervisor, obviously should have talked to Bella before authorizing Juanita to cut through the stockroom.

That’s what a substantial limitation looks like. Next, let’s consider a case where the limitation was real, but not substantial.

How much activity is “substantially” limited under ADA Law?
“I can’t lift that box,” Chris Fletcher told supervisor Ronni Tyler. “My doctor’s restrictions say I can’t lift more than 15 pounds, and that box is definitely heavier than that.”

“Come into my office, Chris,” Ronni said. Once they were inside, Ronni shut the door. “I can’t run a department this way,” she said. “The majority of our incoming and outgoing shipments weigh more than 15 pounds. For a year after you hurt your elbow, I put up with having to have somebody help you. But it’s getting to be too much.”

“I can’t help it,” Chris said. “I’m taking care of the elbow the way my doctor says to, but the tendinitis is real painful, all the time. Do you know that I can’t even push a lawn mower or lift a basketful of laundry at home?”

“I’m truly sorry that you have so much pain,” Ronni said. “But it’s not my fault, and if things don’t get done here it’s my responsibility. I’ll tell you what: Why don’t you either take the 12 weeks of FMLA leave you have coming, or look for another job in the company? I’ll give you a good character reference.”

Chris didn’t see the use of taking FMLA leave, because he felt his elbow would still hurt after 12 weeks. He did look for another job in the company, but nothing was available to fit his qualifications and medical restrictions. So Ronni terminated him.

Chris sued the company under the ADA. But he lost. The court said his painful elbow didn’t “substantially limit” his ability to perform the run of manual tasks that are central to daily life. He could still help out around the house, do dishes, tidy up, and do laundry. Not being able to push a lawnmower or lift a heavy laundry basket didn’t qualify as substantial.
(Nuzum v. Ozark Automotive Distributors)

ADA Guidelines for managers
You’re not expected to be a lawyer or a judge and weigh all the possible legal fine points when a worker isn’t carrying out his or her duties due to a physical or mental limitation. But if you have the idea of “substantial limitation” firmly in mind, you’ll be better able to decide when you can take care of an issue yourself, and when it’s better to “kick it upstairs” to a line superior or to HR.

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